Sunday, October 31, 2010

Namhansanseong Cultural Festival

I had no intentions of attending the Namhansanseong Cultural Festival on the outskirts of Seoul.  I had no idea it was ongoing when my husband and I hopped off the bus headed for our first hike in Korea.  It was the music that lured us there.  We had to find out what was going on.

This festival was a local event and Cameron and I ended up being the only foreigners there.  The Koreans seemed tickled by our presence.  At every turn, we were offered food and wine.  We were welcomed with smiles and hellos.  I even ended up with a personal escort to the ladies room!  Koreans can often be reserved, so this reception was a welcome change.

My favorite encounter of the day was with a Korean man who spoke absolutely no English.  He saw me watching people writing wishes to be tied to a straw tower that would later be burned.  I was watching like a tourist, but he thrust a pen in my hand and literally pushed me toward the table.  So, I wrote a wish, and then he showed me how to tie my paper to the tower (see pictures below).  With gestures, grunts, and smiles we communicated and I was pleased to be included.

On the surface, the festival was like any other we would see in America.  There was music and entertainment, craft booths, food and even coverage from a local news crew.  Of course, upon closer inspection it’s all so different – everything is meant to celebrate the Korean culture.  A couple of hours were well spent here.  People were in a festive mood, and we were happy to watch and celebrate with them.

A picture together after I wrote down my wishes for the year ahead.

Securing my wish -- and learning how to tie it the proper way.

All the wishes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hiking Korea

(Great views!  At the mountain top with Seoul sprawling behind me)

One of the most popular sports in Korea is hiking.  I know, it’s not the first thing that comes to mind when you think “sports.”  But on any weekend day, you will see Koreans heading to the mountains outfitted in their color coordinating hiking gear, with walking sticks in hand.  There’s plenty of beautiful scenery to choose from in Korea, so Cameron and I decided to give it a try.

We set out for Namhansanseong Provincial Park, which has trails running along fortress walls built hundreds of years ago to defend Seoul.  Temples, pavilions, and fortress gates are tucked away along the wooded trail.  It’s a mix of historic Seoul and the great outdoors.

As it turns out, I enjoy hiking.  The scenery was beautiful and this was a great way to get a workout.  Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a fan of the gym or running in place on a treadmill.  But huffing and puffing while hiking just feels good.

As the sun began to set, we ended up at the top of the mountain.  That’s where we came across a dozen hikers poised with their camera gear, ready to watch Seoul fade to black.  The views of the southern portion of the city were fabulous.  Seoul is sprawling, and it rolls on for as far as the eye can see.

This was a great first hike, and I’m certain it won’t be our last.  Who knows…maybe I’ll even have some color coordinated hiking outfits in my wardrobe soon, although they don’t have boots my size…

(Directions to Namhansanseong:  Subway Line 8 to Namhansanseong.  Take Exit 1.  Then hop on Bus #9 to get to the park entrance.)

A "watch tower" along fortress walls used to protect Seoul in the 1600's

This beautiful painted detail has been restored.  The same motif is found at local palaces and temples.

The fortress wall we hiked along. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Namdaemun Market

I’m certain every woman knows the sensation.  It’s the urge to shop.  After nearly 5 months of showing restraint, I was overcome.  I wanted to shop!

So, I decided to do some shopping Korean style.  I went to one of the country’s largest and most famous markets, Namdaemun Market.  It’s a maze of pedestrian streets lined by vendors with outdoor stalls.  You can venture inside too.  Each building is packed with an endless array of specialty shops.  One alley is just for bedding, another for stationary, and another for camera gear.  This list goes on.  A full day spent here only scratches the surface, considering there are 10,000 stores.  Nope, that wasn't a typo.

One benefit to market shopping is that you can find just about everything you need in one location.  You can also comparison shop.  After all, the vendors are lined up competing for your business.  And, then there are the bargain prices.  At the market, you can find some fabulous deals.  How about a sweater for $3 or a new purse for $10?  Yes, I picked up both!  I even fit in some Christmas shopping, because the market has some beautiful traditional items that are hard to find elsewhere.

But, Namdaemun Market isn’t just about shopping, it’s about the experience.  The vendors call out to the tourists and everyone wants to know where you are from.  One woman gave us a strange fruit that looked like a tomato from the outside and a sweet potato on the inside.  We stood in the street and ate them together.  Another shopper helped me pick out a fall coat ($10) and did some translating for me.  Later, a woman stopped us when she heard me say “thank you” in Korean.  She was so impressed!  Turns out she’s Korean American and just here for a visit.  These are just little moments in our day, but all stitched together they make for such an enjoyable experience.

We stayed late into the night – and we watched the market transform.  Makeshift restaurants with grills, tents, and plastic tables are erected in the middle of the street.  New merchandise appears along with some new sales.

The market is full of energy.  It’s authentic – this is where Korean’s do their shopping.  But, if you’re a tourist, this is also a must-see in Seoul.

(Directions to Namdaemun Market:  Take subway line #4 to Hoehyeon Station.  Take Exit 5, which will put you right at the market entrance.)

This is what the vendors' stalls look like -- crowded and overflowing with merchandise.

Searching for some shirts.

Namdaemun transforms as night.  This is one of the makeshift restaurants set-up for the evening.  Namdaemun is a great place to try traditional Korean dishes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Curious Alice

(Playing the role of "Lauren Teacher" I'm ready for your questions!)

Alice is one of my favorite students.  She is smart, sweet and affectionate.  But, that’s not what has won me over.  It’s her unrestrained curiosity – about the world and mostly me.  She has no filter.  She asks whatever is on her mind, whenever it pops into her mind.  This could be in the middle of a lesson, but the curiosity must get the best of her…she interrupts with a question.

One day her simple question actually had an incredibly complicated answer.  Calling out “teacher” to get my attention, I see Alice pinch together her adorable nose to make it pointy.  She then asks in a nasal voice why in America are noses like this – why is my nose like this?

Okay – I’m not in a position to discuss race or ethnicity with any group of 6 year olds, let alone ones that barely understand English.  Please understand that part of this class involves doing charades in order to explain concepts to each other – drawing pictures is also a staple.  So, I take the easy way out.  I say it’s because I’m from America and some people look different there.  I show them a map and how far America is from South Korea.  Another little girl then asks; is that why your eyes are green and mine are black?  And what about my yellow hair?  My appearance is an unending source of fascination for my students.

Luckily the map soon diverts their attention.  They mention how big America is compared to South Korea, and I can see they are concerned.  I explain that both big and small countries can be good countries.  They are happy with this answer.  Since America is my “home” they ask if I go to America on the weekends.  So, I explain how it’s too far and I must take a plane to get to America.  Again, they seem satisfied with this answer.

And then I get hit with another bomb from Alice.  In her broken English Alice says “Teacher, why in America, English and why here, Korean?”  Translation -- why do we speak different languages?  Wow, what an excellent question.  I won’t go into my answer, because I’m certain I failed miserably.

And so it goes….one answer leads to another question.  With Alice, this could go on for an entire class.  Typically, I field a few questions and then manage to steer my small class back to the lesson at hand.

But, I have to admit, everyday I look forward to this class and to seeing Alice.  What questions will she ask me today?  Of course, the better question is, will I have an answer?

Nothing To Envy: North Korea

The lives of the people in North Korea are nothing to envy.  With only a basic knowledge of this communist country, that much is clear.  However, the title of Barbara Demick’s book, “Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives In North Korea,” has a dual meaning.  The first seems obvious.  The second becomes clear well into the novel when we learn “nothing to envy” is one of the propaganda catch phrases of the regime.  In other words, North Koreans are so fortunate, they have nothing to envy in the world.  A childhood song goes like this:                     

Our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.

Our house is within the embrace of the Workers’ Party.

We are all brothers and sisters.

Even if a sea of fire comes toward us, sweet children

Do not need to be afraid,

Our father is here.

We have nothing to envy in this world.

With my change of address to South Korea, I suddenly find myself fascinated by the hermetic nation of North Korea.  It’s not really the politics that fascinate me.  It’s what this book is about – the ordinary lives of the people.  What are their lives like?  What do they know about the world?  What propaganda are they taught?  Are they happy?  Do they know that better things exist?

Each of these simple questions has complicated answers, as every North Korean has a unique experience.  But, this book follows the lives of six people who eventually defected to South Korea.  That’s the only reason their stories can be told.

We learn of adults in the 2000’s defecting and learning of the existence of the internet, cell phones, and how babies are conceived.  Raised to think they were the luckiest people on earth, after crossing the boarder to China, one woman discovers the dogs are eating better than her.

What’s also fascinating is that North Korea was a developed nation.  It was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union that brought disaster and eventually famine.  The loss of these allies and their money brought industry to a halt, job losses, and power outages.  So, while it was once plausible that lives were bearable, it’s been hard to imagine so for two decades.

It’s interesting how the change of address has me fascinated.  But, when living in the States, North Korea is a half a world away.  It feels even farther – it feels unreal.  Now, if I could cross the boarder, I’m just a short drive away.  It’s hard to believe such a juxtaposition of modernity that is South Korea, is so close to people who may still believe they have nothing to envy.

This book was fascinating and insightful.  As the author chronicles the lives of six North Koreans you learn about the power of the human spirit and the will to survive. 

Author:  Barbara Demick

Title:  Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives In North Korea

Click Here for the author's website

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Trying Octopus Balls in Osaka (Video)

Watch this video in HD!  Click to play, then improve the resolution by hitting the "360p" in the right hand corner.  Change it to "720p."  Enjoy!

You can call them Octopus Balls or Takoyaki.  Either way, Osaka is known around the world and in Japan, for this local delicacy.  They are battered bits of octopus that are then fried.  Watching the Takoyaki being made on the streets of Osaka was a lot of fun -- eating it was a regrettable adventure.  As I've admitted before,  I'm a ridiculously picky eater who thinks seafood is a punishment.  So, okay...I'm not the best judge.  But, my husband who is the lover of all things ooey, gooey and fishy wasn't a big fan either.  That's okay.  We still loved Osaka --- the people, the atmosphere, the sights and some of the food.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Map and Slideshow are New!

I've added two new things to my blog with the help of my husband (thank you Cameron!).  Check out the "Map of Lauren's Travels" where we've pinpointed important places in Korea and other parts of Asia that we've visited.  The map has some nice pictures and explanations to go with it.  It will be a constant work in progress as we add more to it.

Also, under Picture Galleries you will now see there is "Lauren's Slideshow."  These pictures are pulled from various travels and we'll update them periodically too.  After clicking on the slideshow tab, just wait a minute for the pictures to load.

I love these new features and I hope you enjoy them too!

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Japanese Shrine Matsuri

Our travel guide noted that festivals are so common in Japan, there’s always a good chance travelers will stumble upon one.  I’m so glad that we did.

We were eating lunch in Tokyo when we first heard the drums beating, signaling their arrival.  Looking down from our second story window we had the perfect view as dozens of men and women came dancing down the street proudly carrying a golden shrine on their shoulders.  Each portable shrine was attached to wooden planks so that about 40 people could carry this holy object.  And one group was quickly followed by another group…with another shrine.

We quickly finished eating to join the crowds at street level.  The festival participants were dressed in cotton kimonos.  They seemed tireless as they bounced the shrines above their heads all the time chanting, the goal being to draw more power to their gods.

Soon, an even larger shrine was wheeled through the streets followed by speeches and prayers.  I can’t say I understood them, but it was still wonderful to hear.  I’ve seen similar shrines before in a temple, where they’re typically housed and worshipped.  But this was different.  We were catching a glimpse of a Japanese tradition.

I’m starting to discover that some of the most wonderful travel experiences simply can’t be planned or scheduled in advance.

Here's a close up look at one of the portable shrines carried through the streets of Shibuya.

The larger shrine, being wheeled down the street.